In 1905, German sociologist, Max Weber, compiled a series of essays and put them into a book titled, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Twenty-five years later, in 1930, American sociologist, Talcott Parsons, translated Weber book into English. In his book, Weber saw a connection between the economic system of capitalism and the religious system of Protestantism (mainly Calvinism). Calvinism (named after Protestant reformer, John Calvin, d. 1564), teaches that all men are sinners and deserving of hell. But God, in His sovereign grace, unconditionally chose to save some (“the elect”). Capitalism, Weber thought, arose out of this doctrine because one way to show you were part of the “elect” was by material gain and blessings. Thus, if you worked hard, developed your own business or trade, accumulated wealth, and invested your wealth, then God would bless you, and since God only blesses His chosen ones, then hard work and wealth and success were signs you were part of God’s elect. Fast forward to present day, and what you see is an extreme case of what Weber was talking about in the teaching known as the “prosperity gospel;” “name it and claim it;” “it is God’s will for His followers to be rich;” “sow a seed into my ministry and you will reap a harvest ten-fold;” etc, etc, etc. Lost in the health and wealth gospel, is the idea of suffering for Christ. The logic is simple: If material blessings are signs you have been chosen by God, then physical sufferings must be signs that God has not chosen you. Even worse, He has cursed you.
This teaching is a lie straight from the pit of hell! But it is prominent in more than a few evangelical churches in the United States. As radical disciples of Jesus Christ, we should not go looking for suffering, but neither should we be afraid of suffering. In fact, when it comes, and it will come, we should embrace it! Consider just a few verses of Scripture:
- “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).
- “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27).
- “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).
In the Bible, and in real life, suffering and poverty often go together. Consider these verses on poverty:
- “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
- “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied” (Luke 6:20-21).
- “The poor are shunned even by their neighbors, but the rich have many friends” (Proverbs 14:20).
For some reason, we are afraid of suffering, and we dislike poverty. Surely God doesn’t want us to suffer! Surely God wants us to be rich! Yet, of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation, the only church that Jesus has nothing bad to say about was a church known for her poverty and suffering. I find that very interesting.
The Church in Smyrna
From Ephesus, if you traveled north for thirty-five miles, you would come to the beautiful port city of Smyrna. Like Ephesus, Smyrna was a city of considerable wealth and commercial greatness. This city claimed to be the Glory of Asia. Smyrna was home to several temples to Greek gods, including Apollo, Aphrodite, and Zeus. As an important, wealthy, powerful city, the people of Smyrna would look with “contempt on the poor and humble Christians, and would despise them as of no importance.”
It was dangerous to be a Christian in Smyrna for several reasons, the first of which was that Smyrna was steeped in Caesar worship. Caesar worship started as pride for one’s country, a type of nationalism that believed the Roman Empire to be the greatest empire in the world. Rome was the super-power of that day, and to be a Roman citizen meant being in a privileged position. The one person that symbolized the greatness of Rome was the Caesar. What was once simply adulation to their leader, became worship of Caesar as a god become man, sent to earth to bring peace and prosperity. In places like Smyrna, once a year, every citizen was to offer an incense sacrifice to Caesar, and say the words, “Caesar is Lord.” After doing so, they would receive a certificate stating they had made the sacrifice and said the pledge of allegiance. Without that certificate, without that mark, a person could neither buy or sell or participate in any form of commerce. Say that pledge, make that sacrifice, receive that certificate, and then you could worship any god, and worship any way, you pleased. But if you did not say that pledge, or make that sacrifice, you will be ridiculed, mistreated, and possibly imprisoned and killed. To the believers in Smyrna, Caesar was the Beast referred to later in Revelation, and this certificate was the mark of the Beast. If you did not have this mark (this certificate) you were destined to live in poverty, and threatened with persecution, and prosecution, every day.
Being a Christian in Smyrna was dangerous. First, because of her nationalism expressed in Caesar worship, and second, because of a large Jewish population that despised the followers of Jesus. Some 60-years after John’s letter to Smyrna, the Jews in the city killed a follower of Jesus, named Polycarp. Polycarp was ordained as the Bishop of Smyrna by John himself. Polycarp was burned alive after refusing to denounce his faith in Jesus. Church history records, that before they set the fire, they gave him one more chance to denounce his faith. Polycarp then said, “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked.” He then said, “I bless you Father for judging me worthy of this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ.”
It is this church in Smyrna (modern day Izmir, Turkey with a population of more than four million people), that we now turn our attention. John begins, “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:” (Revelation 2:8a). The name “Smyrna,” itself, tells us something of the situation of the Christians in that city. The name comes from the word myrrh, an ancient perfume that was used to embalm and perfume dead bodies. Jesus’ dead body was anointed with myrrh in John 19:39. The entire letter to Smyrna revolved around suffering, persecution, death, and resurrection!
How is Christ pictured for Smyrna? “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again” (Revelation 2:8b). The believers in Smyrna would find comfort in that fact that Jesus is sovereign over-all, and the fact that He was resurrected would mean they would be resurrected after they died. If they died for their faith in Jesus, they could rest assured they would live forever with Him. Likewise, there is no need for us to be afraid of suffering. A radical disciple of Jesus doesn’t need to be afraid of anything, because, even if he or she dies, he or she will live forever with Him. This is why the Apostle Paul could confidently say, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
Next, John commends the church. He writes, “I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9). It’s interesting, is it not, that this church was commended for her “affliction,” “poverty,” and “slander”? The word “affliction” carries the idea of being under great pressure, to the point of being tortured. The Greek word translated “poverty” (ptocheia) means destitute. It is more than simply not having enough. The idea is that they had absolutely nothing! The Christians in Smyrna weren’t just poor, they were the poorest of the poor! Smyrna, one of the wealthiest cities in all of Asia Minor, had poverty to the point of destitution! More than likely, the Christians in Smyrna were poor because they were Christians. Radically following Christ meant you did not make the Caesar sacrifice and say the Caesar pledge, which meant you lost your job or your business. It meant your family disowned you and your home was taken away from you. They had nothing, because they had turned their backs on everything, to follow Jesus who said, “What good is it to gain the whole world, yet forfeit (your) soul?” (Mark 8:36).
To make matters worse, their affliction, poverty, and slander, came from the religious community of the Jews. Most early Christians were converted from Judaism. Chances are, the church in Smyrna was started by Jews who believed in Jesus on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem and then returned home. There is a really good chance Paul visited this church while he was in Ephesus.
Remember, Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi. The Christian faith was grounded in Judaism, but now, it was the Jews in Smyrna that were persecuting, or causing the persecution on, this young church. Jesus, doesn’t hold back. He says these people are not really Jews, they are not really worshiping God. Rather, they are worshiping Satan!
No critique of this church is given. Instead, John jumps straight to the challenge. You would think Jesus’ challenge would be for them to hang in there because things will get better. Instead, He says to hang in there because things are going to get worse! John writes, “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer” (Revelation 2:10a). About to suffer? What about what they had already suffered? Aren’t You going to deliver them from suffering? Jesus says, “I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10b).
Dear brothers and sisters, do not pray for God to deliver you from sufferings. Pray for Christ to give you the strength to be faithful through the sufferings. This should be our prayer, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11). Suffering for Jesus is the same as suffering with Jesus. Do not pray to be like Jesus if you are not willing to embrace suffering.
God has never asked us to be successful. He has never asked us to be wealthy, or to be poor, or to be healthy, or to be sick. The only thing God has asked us is to be faithful to Him. That’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less. Paul testified, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:12-13).
The phrase, “crown of life” (v. 10) would have special significance to the Christians in Smyrna. In Smyrna, a person who faithfully served the city, and the Roman Empire, later in life, would be given a crown as a reward for their faithful public service. A modern-day example would be our country’s “Presidential Medal of Freedom.” Jesus is challenging the believers to remain faithful in their service to Him, and to others. If you did so, you would receive a crown greater than any reward giving by the city.
Here is the promise: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death” (Revelation 2:11). What a wonderful promise! What a sobering warning! Everyone will die once, but not everyone has to die twice. What is the second death? Later in Revelation, John describes it. He writes, “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:11-15).
Did you know that worldwide every month 322 Christians are killed for their faith?
Did you know that worldwide every month 214 churches and Christian properties are destroyed?
Did you know that worldwide every month 772 forms of violence are committed against Christians?
Did you know that just because you live in country that does not persecute Christians (or any faith) doesn’t mean that you will never experience persecution?
Radical churches produce radical disciples, and radical disciples are not afraid of suffering. John’s letter to the church in Smyrna tell us at least two things: First, pray for the persecuted church. The Apostle Paul, who knew a thing or two about suffering for his faith, wrote, “I urge you brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying for me” (Romans 15:30). Second, while praying for those who are being persecuted, prepare yourselves for persecution. If you live long enough, you will experience it. But, “do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer…be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).
Are you radical enough to not be afraid of suffering?
Remember, radical churches produce radical disciples.
 William Barclay, Letters to the Seven Churches, 2001. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, p. 16.
 From the author’s personal files.